Eva wiped a handful of sweat-soaked dirt from her forehead. The sounds of fighting died off. Except for the goblin things. They apparently still needed to be taught at what point to cease tearing the enemy apart.
“All targets down, commander.”
Nodding at her lieutenant, Eva surveyed the battlefield with a small smile on her face. Everything had gone far better than she had hoped. With direct orders, her soldiers were not as bad as she had originally thought.
“One of the dullahan-bears suffered minor injuries before we could defeat the insect. It isn’t a major wound, but it might be a good idea to keep him in the back for the next few engagements.”
All of her headless bears were lumbering towards her position. It didn’t take long to spot the injured one. He had a large red streak running from his shoulder down to his paw. It gave him a slight limp, but he was otherwise unaffected.
“And no one can heal? Or mundane first aid?”
“Not unless you can.”
Eva frowned at her lieutenant, but nodded. Being able to heal most minor cuts in the blink of an eye and larger wounds with some effort and a bloodstone had made learning first aid significantly less attractive to her. And she had no potions.
Which wasn’t so bad, actually. Eva considered herself far from squeamish, but there was something off-putting about the idea of dumping liquid down their headless necks. And that was assuming potions would work on them in the first place.
A moot point, as it did not change the fact that she didn’t have any.
“Anything else I should be aware of?”
“Nothing comes to mind, command–”
Another vampire-cat–the one that was supposed to be on lookout–dropped down between them, giving a rushed salute to Eva. “Enemy force fast approaching from behind.”
“How many and from which direction?”
Her lookout whipped an arm out, pointing towards the street behind the burnt out building they had just fought within. “Coming up the road. At least seven, possibly eight.”
Eva cursed under her breath. Seven wasn’t a huge number. Arachne could certainly have sent more. While they had just taken out six of the bugs, three of those had been in the initial ambush. Four if she was counting the one the goblins took out.
Retreating wasn’t much of an option. Even if they started running now, the only way to go was out along the back road. Running out the front of the building would pinch her between Arachne’s main force and her current attackers. Along the back road, they’d be forced to run and find a hiding place in some other building. And her dullahan-bears were not faster than the bugs out in the open.
“You,” Eva said, pointing towards the scout, “you’re in charge of the goblins.”
The female vampire-cat grimaced, but nodded. That was understandable. The goblins were menaces.
“Gather them up and loop them around the side. Keep them quiet and out of sight until they’re fully engaged with us. Then start taking them out, one by one, starting with the ones furthest in the back. If any go off on their own, take them out.” Eva paused to take a breath. “Can you do all that?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said with a salute. Before her hand touched her forehead, she was already sprinting off towards the goblins.
Eva sighed. The vampires were easily the more intelligent of her soldiers. Yet she had so few.
She turned towards the third vampire-cat. “You get the bears into cover, ready to charge out and intercept the enemy. Once they’re in place, return to my side.”
“Including the injured one, ma’am?”
Hesitating for just a moment, Eva nodded. If there were eight of the things coming for her, she’d need her full force. Even if that meant fighting while injured. “Him as well.”
The third vampire-cat nodded and ran off without so much as a salute.
Eva would berate him if he survived.
“And us, commander?”
Eva glanced around the burnt building. Other than a few tipped over wooden desks on the ground floor–most of which had large holes in them from the acid spitting bug things–there wasn’t much in the way of cover. With a quick thought, she stepped straight to the second floor balcony.
At least, it looked like a balcony. The way the fire ate away some of the wood made it look like it a balcony, but the wall ran right up along the edge of the floor. Another series of desks was piled in one, mostly unburnt corner.
After looking around for a moment, her lieutenant spotted her. He jumped, gripped the side of the pillar, and bounced off straight up and landed on the edge.
Some of the charcoal cracked and fell beneath one of his paws. With feline grace, he caught himself and casually brushed himself off.
“We’ll have to watch out. They might try to collapse the floor.”
“True,” Eva admitted. It wasn’t ideal–nowhere was–but it could be made better. “If we pile up some of those desks along the walls, they’ll be a lot better than anything on the ground floor.”
“You’ll be a lot happier with more stuff between us and any globs of acid coming our way,” Eva said as she started moving one of the desks against the wall. “Trust me.”
“You’re the commander,” the lieutenant said in a tone that very clearly implied that he was only following orders.
“Alright then.” Eva finished piling a desk on top of the first before turning to the vampire. “What would you do instead?”
The lieutenant kicked one desk against the opposite side of the burnt-out opening in the wall with a grunt. “I don’t mean to counter your orders,” he hedged, “but between your teleportation and our natural graces, we are highly mobile.”
Eva gave a quick aside glance to the ground floor of the building. The place was a mess. Pockmarks of melted wood and earth dotted the entire landscape. And they had taken out all the acid spitters in the initial ambush. Only one managed to get more than one volley of the corrosive gunk out before one of the vampires managed to shove some fire down its throat.
Her bears were almost assembled by the looks of things. Two were well concealed behind a stack of boxes near the edge of the building. The vampire-cat assigned to the task appeared to be directing a third to a spot.
“That might work for me,” Eva said as she added another desk to her barrier. “I can step straight to their opposite side, but even a cat can’t dodge raindrops.”
“Like I said, you’re the commander. I don’t presume–”
A cry cut-short interrupted their work.
Eva whipped her head down to the source. The vampire-cat directing the bears had routed. He ran at full speed back towards their balcony. In a single jump, he cleared the distance.
Feline instincts did not help his landing. He rolled. Hard. A chunk of floorboard fell away from the more charred area of his landing. As he came to a stop, it quickly became apparent why he failed to land.
His arm was slowly being eaten away from the elbow down. Glowing green acid dripped from his wounds.
“They’re here,” he ground out.
With a quick ‘I told you so’ glance towards the lieutenant, Eva threw herself against her makeshift barrier.
Four of the four-legged two-armed dog-kind-of things charged in. Each one sniffed the air once before charging at the two bears that had yet to make it to cover.
Three of the acid-spitters squirmed around the corner immediately after. The worms spotted Eva and her vampires in a split second. All three opened their flat maws. The dull pink gave way to rapidly brightening green.
Hundreds of droplets splayed out, momentarily bathing the entire building in a bright green glow.
Eva gripped her downed vampire by his good shoulder and yanked him behind cover just as the first drops of acid started landing. A few droplets splattered against the carapace covering her hands, but it fizzled out before penetrating the tough chitin.
The lieutenant took advantage of the brief refractory period of the worms to fire off a handful of thaumaturgical fireballs.
After wasting most of the respite ensuring that the soon-to-be armless vampire was out of the way, Eva only managed to get off a single fireball. It left a nice blackened spot on the segmented skin of her target, but nothing more.
Practicing enough to get her fireballs to act like napalm and actually stick to the target might not be such a bad plan in the future. She was fairly confident in her ability these days to catch clothing on fire, but the bugs didn’t wear any.
The second volley of acid hit; most of it aimed at the wooden wall.
She couldn’t tell how much actually disintegrated. None of it got through the thick wooden desks. As she waited for the last of the droplets to land, Eva started to build up a large amount of fire between her claws.
Eva returned fire. Her first and largest ball of flames went straight down the wide-open gullet of one of the worms.
The worm coughed once, releasing a cloud of green-tinged smoke. It tried to spit, but most of the gunk merely dribbled out of its mouth and down its chest–not that the worms had actual chests.
It tried a second time, achieving the same results. Unfortunately, none of the acid dribbling out onto its chest appeared to do it any damage.
Unable to continue watching, Eva ducked behind cover for the next volley with a loud shout. “Where are my goblins!” It wasn’t a question directed at anyone so much as a simple cry of frustration.
Her lieutenant answered with a shrug.
The world answered her in another manner.
A loud rumbling shook the already decrepit wood of her building. The floor and walls trembled.
An armored beetle the size of a school bus charged down the back road, running straight past the battlefield.
Her goblins were clinging to the back, futilely trying to stab through its armored plating.
They all crashed into an adjacent building, sending even more shockwaves through the floor.
“That thing will collapse our building, commander.”
As she clipped the top of one of the worm’s head with a ball of fire, Eva shouted, “I know! Acid spitters first, then we can be mobile.”
With a grunt of acknowledgment, the lieutenant sent a constant stream of fire out of her raised hand. None of it actually reached the worms, but with it, he completely obstructed the next wave of acid.
Eva used the extra time granted to build up another large ball of fire. Twisting it and condensing it, a basketball sized handful of fire compressed to a baseball.
She took an extra moment aiming.
One worm opened its mouth to release another bucket of green goo. That is when Eva struck.
Her aim was true. The moment the ball of flames disappeared down the worm’s throat, Eva released all control of the fire.
The bits and pieces splattering over its comrades could have been art.
The other worms, unfortunately, shrugged off the scattered acid without the slightest scalding. The dog-type bugs had no such immunity. The bug closest to the exploded worm all but vanished in a cloud of green goop. Unfortunately, the dullahan-bear fighting it was right up in close melee.
It could fight without a head perfectly fine, but losing its upper body was apparently too much.
That extra moment had been a moment too long. A splattering of acid landed square on Eva’s shirt.
Using her claws, Eva tore the damaged garments clean off her body before the acid could eat through enough to cause more than cause bright red spots on her skin.
“One left,” Eva shouted. Technically two, but the one was still coughing up acid rather than spraying it across the battlefield.
As soon as the final splatters of acid from the latest volley hit the ground, Eva’s lieutenant dropped from the second floor down to the ground.
A leg of one of the overturned desks snapped off under his weight. He snatched it up and broke into a full sprint.
Eva leaned around her barrier and started flinging as many fireballs as she could, not caring about aim or fire strength. Just so long as she kept the acid spitting worm’s attention off of her lieutenant. So far, it wasn’t working very well.
The worm opened its mouth, aiming straight at the lieutenant.
The constant pelting of flaming pebbles did have an effect on the remaining bug-dog things. Two of them managed to get distracted long enough for the bears to gain a small advantage. Both bears body checked their opponents. One went splaying across the ground with a loud screech. The other held its ground.
The final dog was fighting her injured bear. Fighting might be too kind of a word. The bear was spread across the ground, being picked apart by the sharp overhead talons of the dog.
At least it was too stupid to run and assist its comrades.
Eva’s lieutenant managed to slide behind one of the more intact desks just as the droplets of acid turned the surroundings into pockmarks. He didn’t wait half as long as he should have before resuming the charge against the worm.
With a few well-placed fireballs. Eva successfully disrupted the worm’s next attack just long enough.
The lieutenant sprung into the air. He brought the long shaft of wood straight down onto the worm’s head.
It went straight down to the ground, still squirming.
With a hard kick to the flat end of the wood, the lieutenant drove the stake down into the ground, pinning the worm’s head.
He wasn’t finished yet.
Even though Eva had been the one to teach them, all of the vampire-cats managed to use far more potent flames than Eva. And the lieutenant put those flames to good use.
After a constant stream of fire, there was nothing left of the worm but charcoal.
The fight wasn’t done. There was one worm left.
It reared up like a cobra and slithered towards its downed comrade.
Eva stepped straight to her lieutenant’s side, interposing herself between the vampire and the coughing worm. It might not be able to spit any longer, but it was coated in the acid.
Using her claws, Eva raked straight from its open jaw to the floor. The worm split open, releasing a pungent, caustic odor.
As her arm dragged through the worm, her back protested. She let out a short cry, accidentally inhaling some of the stench.
Eva stepped away, back behind her line of dullahan-bears, gasping for breath. A pain drew her attention to her fingers. The exoskeleton had warped. Like plastic stuck in an oven set too hot. The shiny black sheen had worn off to a pitted black.
Pitted in the spots where it wasn’t still covered in green acid.
Igniting her hands, Eva burned off the remaining acid. As soon as it was gone, she stepped again.
Breathing in the fumes couldn’t be healthy.
Appearing in the air above one of the dog-bugs, Eva immediately set to work taking it apart.
It was the bug attacking her most healthy bear. Might as well keep the best alive for later.
The sharp nails making up her toes gouged into the bug’s back with her entire weight behind the blow. She felt as well as heard the bones snap. The audible crack filled her with a certain satisfaction. Not wanting to take chances, Eva reached out and broke the upwards arms of the dog with her good hand.
The dullahan-bear used the opportunity to claw off the face of the bug, ending its futile struggles.
Looking around, Eva made a quick gesture to the bear in front of her, sending it to assist the other bear in beating down the one bug that had fallen. How, exactly, it interpreted her commands without a head was something she was going to chalk up to the theater-demon.
The bug that had been mauling the remains of the initially injured bear was missing.
A burst of flame at her back pulled her attention.
There was the missing bug.
Charging right through the steady stream of fire coming from her lieutenant.
The bug barreled over him, interrupting the flames, before Eva could step.
“Lieutenant!” Eva shouted.
Again, she teleported above the bug, landing on it with a crunch.
But not before its arms plunged into the floor–through her lieutenant’s chest.
Eva reached down and snapped the bug’s neck, ignoring any pain in her back. With a kick, she sent the carcass flying off of her lieutenant.
He was a mess. Two arm-sized holes reached clear through his chest. Part vampire or not, that wasn’t something that could be shrugged off. A decent amount of thick blood dribbled out of his mouth.
Kneeling down, Eva picked up his head, cradling him in her lap.
“Sorry, c-commander.” He let out a sputtering cough. “I failed you.”
Eva felt a knot in the back of her throat. “No,” she said. “You took out that worm. You helped organize my troops. I would never have reached as far as I have without you.”
The lieutenant gave a faint smile. He reached up with a bloody hand and dragged a streak down Eva’s cheek.
His smile disappeared with a look of horror. “Behind you,” he said, slumping in her arms. His hand dropped to the ground with a resounding thud.
“Rest well, lieutenant.” Eva gently set him against the ground.
Wiping away the single tear sliding down her cheek, Eva stood and turned.
The giant beetle stood stock still, staring at her. Gray splatters dotted its elytra. Probably the only remnants of the goblin contingent. Somehow, it had managed to move up right behind her without making a sound.
It let out a roar. The sound reverberated through the air, sounding as if a hundred of the beasts were shouting in unison. Spittle flew everywhere, some of it landing on Eva’s cheek.
Eva balled her fists. One hand pressed against her cheek, scraping away the slime.
And then, Eva returned its roar with a shout of her own.
It would pay.
Stepping to its back, Eva tried to slam down her foot with as much force as she could muster. She sent a spiderweb of cracks across the armored plate, but failed to penetrate.
Undaunted by its resilience, Eva ignited her fist. She manipulated the fire, twisting and compressing it as she had for the recently exploded worm. Using her good hand, Eva pried up the elytron covering one of the beetle’s wings. She dropped her fireball inside as soon as she made enough space.
And promptly stepped away.
Eva turned just in time to watch the shell snap clean off the beetle’s back. It spun through the air, end over end like some sort of oblong saw blade.
The spin carried it straight through the pillar holding up the second floor and embedded it into the far wall.
For a moment, there was nothing but silence.
A loud creak echoed through the building. The creak turned to a groan.
Starting at the pillar, the entire second floor collapsed along with a full half of the roof.
The bug screamed out its multitonal wail again. Its pincers swept through the building, pulping the one bear that had been brave enough to approach.
Eva shouted with it, stepping again. This time, her powerful legs punctured straight through the softer carapace beneath the wing cover. Eva dug into its carapace with her claws and other leg for dear life.
The beetle had started bucking, trying to get her off of its back.
It charged through a wall. Eva pressed herself against its carapace. Wood still scraped along her back.
Running out of time, a thought popped into Eva’s head.
She tried something she had never attempted before.
Eva had always used her hands the primary connection between her magic and the world. But she did not use a focus. Her entire body was a focus thanks to the demonic blood coursing through her veins. So what, exactly, was the difference between hands and feet?
The creature started thrashing wildly, more so than before. Its multitonal screech hit a crescendo as Eva felt her leg starting to heat up.
It was hard without having it right in front of her face. At the same time, it wasn’t all that different. Eva ignored the scrapes against her back, concentrating on building up the flames deep within the beetle’s back. She compressed them, again turning her fire into a thaumaturgical bomb.
After twice as long as she had spent building up either of her other bombs, Eva decided it was time. She stepped straight out of the beetle’s back to mid-air–she didn’t want to take the risk of teleporting into some debris–landing in an awkward position on top of the rubble of the burnt out house.
If exploding bugs could be considered art, this would win an award.
Viscera splattered against the walls. The entire room was painted over in a rust red. Bits of armor plating cut into the walls and debris, sending even more flying around.
Eva shielded her head with her forearms, letting the tough chitin take the hits rather than her skull. Thankfully, none of it was anything giant. Mostly just small shards. She’d be picking bits out of her arms for weeks, but at least she wouldn’t be picking it out of her brain.
The slopping noises slowly ceased as the last pieces of meat settled.
Eva slowly stood up, wincing. Her back felt like it had gone through a few cheese graters. The small cuts could be healed away, but the larger ones, especially those around her preexisting wound, were more problematic.
Looking around, Eva frowned. There was nothing left. Her last surviving dullahan-bear was nowhere in sight. It was probably among the beetle’s viscera. The acid-wounded vampire had been on the second floor. He was now buried under the rubble Eva was standing upon.
Eva hadn’t seen the vampire that had been in charge of the goblins since she initially took the goblins away. So she was probably dead or perhaps off fleeing.
Given that everyone else was dead, fleeing was probably the wise decision.
“Arachne,” Eva shouted at nowhere in particular. She raised a fist, shaking it at the empty sky. “You’ll pay for wha–”
Getting carried away?
“Yeah,” Eva mumbled, pinching the bridge of her nose. That damn theater-demon. I got all caught up in his nonsense.
Are the others all caught up in that nonsense too?
It doesn’t– Eva shook her head side to side. Get out of my head.
Silence answered her.
Eva looked out to the streets. She needed to get out of this domain. With Arachne, Juliana, and Genoa. If they were all caught up in the theater-demon’s act, she needed to slap them out of it.
Stepping up to a nearby roof, Eva looked around.
First, she needed to find them.